Ego depletion is the theory that your willpower is a limited global resource that can be temporarily depleted. For example, when you must control your anger at incompetent drivers on your way to the gym, you’ll have less willpower to hit the weights hard.
I’ve recently discussed new scientific evidence that did not support this theory. However, just as recently, Englert (2016) has reviewed the relevant studies that were published over the past six years—again highly supportive of the ego depletion theory. Confusing?
Don’t panic. In this article, I will shed light on the issue by showing you:
- How ego depletion impairs your athletic performance
- What you can do about it
Instead of the problematic term “ego depletion,” which suggests a limited pool of willpower, I will here only speak of willpower fatigue to allow for the fact that motivation can override the effect, which is, as Segerstrom and colleagues (2012) claim, possible with fatigue but not depletion.
How willpower fatigue impairs your athletic performance
If your training isn’t consistent, you won’t achieve shit. That’s no real danger if you don’t have any stress in your life. However, as daily stressors keep piling up, your training consistency gets threatened: You want to train but in the end you seldom make it to the gym. Scientists call this the “intention–behavior gap” (Englert 2016): The greater your willpower, the smaller your intention–behavior gap will be. I know, this isn’t surprising news; it’s basically the definition of willpower. Unfortunately, the results of all the studies that looked into this aren’t intriguing either. So let’s move on…
Willpower fatigue limits physical endurance, and since willpower is a global resource, the fatigue needn’t even result from a physical effort. Need some studies to believe it?
- Bray et al. (2008) had their participants squeeze a handgrip for as long as possible. If their willpower had been fatigued by a cognitive task (Stroop test, see picture), they didn’t squeeze as long.
- Dorris et al. (2012) had their participants perform as many press-ups (experiment 1) or sit-ups (experiment 2) as possible. In both experiments, if subjects had fatigued their willpower by counting back from 1000 in 7’s while balancing a spirit level, they completed fewer exercise repetitions. In the control condition, they had to count back from 1000 in 5’s without the balancing task. This didn’t fatigue their willpower as much, so now they completed more repetitions.
- Englert and Wolff (2015) had participants perform a cycling task. If their willpower had been fatigued by a cognitive task (again Stroop test, see picture), their power output was lower.
- Wagstaff (2014) had participants cycle 10 km as fast as possible. If their willpower had been fatigued by suppressing emotions while watching an upsetting video clip, they didn’t cycle as fast.
In all these studies, a brief cognitive effort fatigued people’s willpower enough to impair their physical performance.
In addition, fatigued willpower negatively affects people’s impulse control. This can be disastrous, especially in sports where precision and timing are crucial.
When you’re competing in sports, there’s a lot of pressure associated with high levels of anxiety. As you’ve probably experienced yourself, anxiety is a double-edged sword:
- On the one hand, anxiety can fuel your performance by providing you with an emotional boost. You can extract excitement out of your anxiety to sharpen your focus even more.
- On the other hand, anxiety may cause you to ruminate, worry about the quality of your performance, and interfere with your ability to focus your attention on the task at hand.
In both cases, attention regulation (attentional control) is key. As studies suggest, the difference between the two cases may be marked by willpower fatigue:
With temporarily available self-control strength, athletes can counteract the negative effects of anxiety on attention regulation and can consequently keep up their performance. (Englert 2016)
If your willpower is still fresh, you can use it to transform your anxiety into excitement and focus your attention. If your willpower is fatigued, you’ll be in less control of your attention and suffer from your anxiety. Of course, not fatiguing your willpower can’t be the solution to this problem—but what can be a solution then? Here’s…
What you can do about it
Train your willpower muscle
Willpower works like a muscle: The more you use it, the greater it will become (Baumeister et al. 2006). So don’t ever use ego depletion as an excuse not to go hard! Pushing yourself to the limit and living on the edge will strengthen your will in the long run.
No, not just in sports. In fact, your willpower muscle is domain-unspecific (e.g., Bray et al. 2012, Gailliot et al. 2007). This means:
- When you regularly use willpower to push yourself in the gym, you’ll have more willpower to pay attention in class.
- When you regularly use willpower to control your attention to study for exams, you’ll have more willpower to control your emotions when you seduce a sexy lady.
- When you regularly use willpower to get out of your comfort zone and battle your fears, you’ll have more willpower to persist when you start a business.
- When you regularly use willpower to give 100% at work, you’ll have more willpower to stick to your diet.
- When participants in an experiment squeezed a handgrip twice a day for as long as possible, their performance after two weeks in a maximal incremental exercise test on a bicycle ergometer was significantly higher than the performance of subjects who didn’t exercise their willpower muscle with a handgrip (Bray et al. 2015).
What’s crucial here is, of course, the long-term perspective. Imagine you’re at the gym and you’ve just exhausted your chest muscles on the bench press: Can you, right after your last set, set a new personal record on the bench press? Definitely not. However, if you wait until your muscles are recovered, you might very likely be able to—because your muscles have grown stronger. Similarly, when you go hard in the gym, focus on studying, demonstrate courage, or hustle like a motherfucker, you’ll temporarily have less willpower for all the other challenges—but once you’ve recovered, your willpower muscle will be stronger than ever. That’s also why it’s so crucial to manage your priorities wisely.
How do you replenish your physical strength after an intense athletic challenge? You relax your muscles. So, how can you replenish your volitional strength after an intense willpower challenge? Well, by relaxing your will.
As Englert (2016) points out, relaxation techniques like meditation or autogenic training after a willpower challenge have proven to replenish the power of will. However, consider that meditation is a practice of focusing your attention, which requires attentional control, which requires willpower. I find it thus contradictory to use meditation as an immediate tool for replenishing willpower.
The most effective method is probably HRV biofeedback training.
Regulating your breathing rate in general is effective to help your will recover; for respiratory control is a lot easier than attentional control. Furthermore, breathing exercises are extremely flexible and easy to integrate into all kinds of situations: You can apply them before, after, and in pauses between struggles as well as during the struggle itself.
In the long term, meditation will definitely be beneficial. As you’ve seen in the studies above, the most common way to fatigue people’s willpower is to give them a cognitive task. The more your mind has to work, the more fatigued your willpower will get. Hence, if you practice mindcoolness and learn how to calm down your mind, you can minimize your mental willpower drains. Think less, act more!
Studies have repeatedly found that greater autonomy stunts willpower exhaustion. When you do something because someone else told you to, it’ll cost you more willpower than when you do what you want. The reason for this is that when you’re less reluctant to do something, you “do not need to override aversive impulses” (Englert 2015), which, of course, would cost willpower. (Consider this with respect to your coach: If you don’t fully agree with his methods, your performance will suffer from it.)
When you do something automatically, you don’t need willpower for it. That’s why good habits are so invaluable.
The best way to start is to organize your lifestyle intelligently by creating specific intentions and binding them to already existing habits. For example, don’t say: “I will work out tomorrow.” Rather say: “Tomorrow I’ll get up at 5:20 in order to be at the gym at 6 am, so that I’ll be done by 7:30 and ready for work.”—and make it even more specific!
It’s all about behavior automatization: The more you behave like a robot, the less willpower you’ll waste, and the more willpower you’ll have available for non-robotic tasks—like going fucking hard and putting your heart and soul into it.
Was this article helpful to you? Do you sometimes experience willpower fatigue? If so, how do you deal with it? Tell me in the comments below!
Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: how interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality 74(6), pp. 1773-1801.
Bray, S. R., Graham, J. D., Saville, P. D. (2015). Self-control training leads to enhanced cardiovascular exercise performance. Journal of Sports Sciences 33(5), pp. 534-543.
Bray, S. R., Graham, J. D., Martin Ginis, K. A., Hicks, A. L. (2011). Cognitive task performance causes impaired maximum force production in human hand flexor muscles. Biological Psychology 89(1), pp. 195-200.
Bray, S. R., Martin Ginis, K. A., Hicks, A. L., Woodgate, J. (2008). Effects of self-regulatory strength depletion on muscular performance and EMG activation. Psychophysiology 45(2), pp. 337-343.
Dorris, D. C., Power, D. A., Kenefick, E. (2012). Investigating the effects of ego depletion on physical exercise routines of athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 13(2), pp. 118-125.
Gailliot, M. T., Plant, E. A., Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Increasing self-regulatory strength can reduce the depleting effect of suppressing stereotypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 33(2), pp. 281-294.
Englert, C., Wolff, W. (2015). Ego depletion and persistent performance in a cycling task. International Journal of Sport Psychology 46, pp. 137-151.
Englert, C. (2016). The Strength Model of Self-Control in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Frontiers in Psychology 7(314), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00314.
Segerstrom, S. C., Hardy, J. K., Evans, D. R., Winters, N. F. (2012). Pause and Plan: Self-Regulation and the Heart. In: Wright, R. A. & Gendolla, G. H. E. (Editors). How Motivation Affects Cardiovascular Response. Mechanisms and Applications. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, pp. 181-198.
Wagstaff, C. R. (2014). Emotion regulation and sport performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 36(4), 401-412.